Wednesday, 16 December 2009


The Internet is a great way of communicating with people and, if you're a writer, getting news about your work across. Perhaps the best way ever invented. That is, until something goes wrong. And when that happens, it's usually behind your back, without your knowing, and with little recourse.

A short while back, someone hacked into my website and left a pop-up advert there. And if you think that's the problem, then you're wrong. My site manager, the wonderful Marie, promptly got on it, removed the offending article, and that, so far as I was aware, was that.

Nope. A couple of days later, one of my followers on Twitter got in touch to inform me she'd gone onto my site and her virus protection software (I'll call it VPS from this point on) had warned her that she oughtn't be there. I went on myself and got the same result. During the few days that one unwanted little pop-up ad was present on, a lot of VPS systems had detected that and deemed my site unsafe.

And I'm not just talking about a mild warning either. This was the full treatment. A red flag. A big X. An advisement to only continue looking at my site with 'extreme caution.' The kind of stuff, in other words, that sends sensible browsers fleeing, quite possibly never to return. All it needed to look worse was a skull-and-crossbones and a message from the Surgeon General.

Which would be bad enough at any time. But this time? My latest novel had gone into the bookstores one month earlier, and was getting great reviews across the board. Many of those were referencing my website, as were the interviews that I was doing. Loads of people would have been visiting my site around that stage, and being chased away by the red flags. Add to that the fact that readers who've enjoyed my latest book tend to go on richardsreality and use the 'contact' button there to email me and let me know they liked it ... and now there was little chance of them doing so. Which was just plain depressing. I rarely complain about the fact that writing is an isolated business, but I value those kinds of emails very much.

I could sit around and wait for the situation to resolve itself, of course. Wait until the VPS companies got around to retesting my site and giving it a clean bill of health. Which might take a couple of weeks or so. But in case you don't know it, when it comes to a mass-market paperback, the first couple of months on the shelves are pretty crucial and, in the case of some bookstores, all the time it really has. And two weeks is a big chunk out of that. So I decided to try and do something about it myself, by visiting the websites of the larger VPS companies.

To give McAfee credit, they provided me with an easy-to-fill-out online form with which I could explain the problem and ask them to retest my site promptly, which they did. But as for the rest? I spent a considerable time trying to figure out who I should contact to get something done, with no success whatever. Download our product? Sure. Customer support? Absolutely. But "we've just messed you over, and here's where you get in touch to put the problem right"? There was no such facility, anywhere I looked.

Okay, I know that the VPS companies mostly do a stand-up job. Without them, let's face it, we'd have computer viruses climbing out of our screens and chasing us down the stairs. And I understand how many websites exist out there, all of which need testing ... around 65 million at the last count. None of which alters the fact that their red flag was causing me considerable grief. So I have two suggestions for the VPS guys.

One: put a clear, obvious link on your sites where people who've been flagged can apply for a retest, pronto. And two: once you have red-flagged a site, implement a system where it is retested more frequently than most to find out if the problem has been cleared up. Because putting the IT equivalent of the Mark of Cain on someone's website and then ambling away for another fortnight isn't exactly helpful behaviour.

Does anyone have any software that can protect me from the virus protectors?

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